That Lucky Old Sun

Brian Wilson

Capitol Records, 2008

http://brianwilson.com

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/02/2008

Those paying attention to the popular music scene of the new millennium have been privy to the musical renaissance of one Brian Wilson, one of the men responsible for pushing rock forward as a creative and artistic medium akin to a great painting or film. Pet Sounds alone solidified his legacy, and the abandoned ‘60s masterwork SMiLE was one of the great legends in rock history, prompting decades of speculation and wonderment as to what could have been.

The genius behind the harmonies of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the harmless playful intentions of “Surfer Girl” fell into a state of mental disarray during the ‘70s, and many feared his name would be displayed front and center on the local newspaper in a tale of a light extinguished before its time. Thankfully, that headline never came to pass, and Wilson embarked on a quest to reclaim his status as one of rock’s true masters.

That quest finally achieved fruition in 2004 with the release of the long-lost SMiLE. Fans ate it up, critics heaped praise upon it, and Wilson’s name had returned to the perch where it had once sat. He followed it up with a Christmas album, What I Really Want For Christmas, which served as a fine way to tide fans over until the next “serious” work. Now, in 2008, Wilson and Co. have delivered That Lucky Old Sun as the next step.

In many ways, following in SMiLE’s footsteps should have proved to be impossible. Truth be told, the music featured on that 2004 LP had essentially been recorded in 1967 and was merely strengthened and re-recorded for the present day. That Lucky Old Sun marks an entirely new set of recordings, commissioned for the opening of a series of venues in the UK. Although the same cast present for SMiLE assembled for the recording and performing of this album, there were no guarantees that the magic would still be there.

The inevitable comparisons to SMiLE are pointless because That Lucky Old Sun does not reach the same level of creativity and sustained greatness. However, to dismiss it as a poor follow-up would be incorrect as well. There are moments on That Lucky Old Sun that rival Wilson’s finest moments as a songwriter and performer; there just aren’t enough of them.

The whole redemptive nature of Wilson’s life has provided a great deal of inspiration for his music, something that clearly comes forth on this record. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Wilson fondly reminisces about his early career with his brothers (“Southern California” and “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl”), and reflects upon the darker days (“Midnight’s Another Day”). As Wilson recounts during the latter, “Lost my way / The sun grew dim / Stepped over grace / And stood in sin,” one’s heart breaks because the pain is there, lurking below the words themselves. Yet in the end, Wilson again takes the positive road and looks towards the future.

The incredible talent of Wilson’s supporting cast allows him to project his vision of music without hindrance. They effortlessly recreate his classic period, despite the amount of difficulty and complexity that usually entails. Each track contains layer upon layer of “feels,” as Wilson once called them, channeling the Spector “Wall of Sound.” The incredibly beautiful blend of vocal talent provides the technical punch, while Wilson lays down the emotional foundation.

That Lucky Old Sun reaches for the stars less than SMiLE did, but the result has the potential to be just as entertaining. “Goin’ Home” features Wilson and the band paying homage to Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue; there is an edge present unique to his work here. “Good Kind Of Live” is an absolute pop delight, wholly naive and saccharine, but Wilson has always had the proper levels of enthusiasms to pull it off.

Because the album was commissioned as a performance piece, there are a series of “Narratives” that populate That Lucky Old Sun and that respond directly to some of the tracks. Their inclusion was a misstep; the lyrics come off as incredibly wordy and clunky. Wilson gamely delivers them, but without the benefit of hearing them live, the whole concept falls apart and diminishes the ebb and the flow of the album.

The middle third of the record also flounders, as the concept beings to break down and the song themselves weaken. “California Role” and “Oxygen To The Brain” are the type of songs Wilson could write in his sleep; they fail to register any sort of memorable hook or melody, and to be frank, I don’t think any artists could successfully deliver the lyrics “oxygen to the brain” and make it sound natural.

The unquestioned pinnacle comes in the form “Midnight’s Another Day.” In every review you read about this album, I have no doubt this song will not just be mentioned, but praised. This is not just one of the best tracks on the album, it ranks as one of Wilson’s greatest, period. Gone are the hokey, uninspired lyrics of the Narrative pieces, and gone are the slightly gimmicky production tricks of the middle third of the album. What’s left is Wilson at his piano singing straight from the heart with the occasional flourish of the French horn and the absolutely stunning Beach Boy-esque vocals. When the song reaches its crescendos, and believe me, you will know when they happen, chills are bound to run down your spine. It is a stunning piece of music.

That Lucky Old Sun has a difficult task: following up SMiLE. Its legacy will depend on the passage of time. There is no doubt that creatively it ranks as the second best Wilson solo album, and it also surpasses a handful of Beach Boys records as well. The large shadow of SMiLE will remain hanging over every Wilson solo record from this point on, but if he continues to deliver albums comparable to That Lucky Old Sun, that won’t be such a bad thing.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.